boots, dirt, walking, soldiers, mud

Build Tribes, Not Teams

If you’ve ever heard the term “teaming” and all the associated corporate-speak that goes with it about building coalitions, collaboration and community, et al., you’ve probably given some thought to how we actually get groups of unrelated people to work together. Individuals have different personalities, interests, and agendas, and managers need to tackle those competing differences and weave them together into something that works.

They need to form tribes because tribes, unlike teams, are based on inherent and native mutuality – they must stick together to survive.

So, how do we that? What are some ways to build tribes? One of the best active organizational examples of tribes versus teams can be found in the United States Marine Corps – I’ve distilled some of the principles into the below.

1. Onboarding is the most important thing you will ever do
You may enter boot camp as an individual but you will leave as a Marine. Boot camp is the transformative activity that creates shared identity, shared values, and shared purpose. Heads get shaven, feet get blisters, and racks get tucked so tightly you can bounce a quarter. You must shed certain individualities to take hold of the things that will link you together with your brother and sisters-in-arms.

Corporate onboarding should be no different. Of course, you’re not going to take your new employees out to the swamp and make them march three miles lugging fifty pounds of gear, but the fundamental principles are the same. When someone new joins your team, how do you introduce them? How do you let them know what works for your team (we like to be in the office by 10am but we don’t leave before 7pm) and what doesn’t (don’t send out emails which lack a proper signature)? What are the activities which you do to make them part of the team? Is it a nickname, a silly tie day, learning everyone’s coffee order and getting it for the first month?

These may sound silly, even infantile, and some may seem to verge on hazing (it’s not) but they are critical. When people don’t fit in, don’t feel that they’ve joined something worthwhile, and aren’t making friends, they are less likely to stay. They will spend a majority of their waking hours in this office; something had better be keeping them more than the paycheck or they will jump ship at the earliest opportunity.

2. Don’t leave people on the island
In the training of special teams in the military, you always have a buddy or a partner. Teams and squads are often deployed in a way that someone has a primary responsibility but is trained in a secondary specialty to be able to step up and take over if something happens.

Work should be the same way. While it’s great to have superstars on a team and people who have total ownership of a particular function or domain, it comes with a peculiar pressure. How many of us know people who feel they can’t take vacation, feel guilty when they do, or are disturbed on their vacations because their teams can’t function without them? Or have you had the situation where someone wants to learn something new or transfer internally to a different role and that’s blocked because they’re “too valuable”?

They will leave. It is only a matter of time.

So, get in front of the issue. Get them a junior associate to train or find them a peer with who they switch off or cross-train. Make this type of buddy or senior/junior system a fundamental way of being in your tribe. Make sure that no one gets left on the island.

3. Lead from the front
It is a fact that Marines lead from the front. You won’t see frontline Marine officers sitting back at the encampment and sending their troops out. They will go with them and that’s exactly how it should be.

Often, as team leads, you are taught to let your team do all of the heavy lifting. You are told that your “real job” is the organization and “management” of these resources and their efforts. You are not to be a doer; you’re to be a coach.

Sorry, folks, but that’s not leadership, and calling it such is a bit of an insult, both to the persons you’re “leading” and to you yourself.

If your people need to stay late, then you need to stay late (and order them dinner). If there is a contentious disagreement between your subordinate and someone else’s, don’t duck and run or tell them to duck and run, wade in there and figure it out. You may not be the expert anymore on certain hands-on activities, but stay up to date on how things are done and never be caught flat-footed. Know your space and have something useful to contribute.

Don’t ever be the person that says “do as I say and not as I do”. That type of dissonance is disastrous from the top to the bottom of a firm. It will sink your organization. It will sink your tribe.

Lead by example, lead by your actions; you are the heart of your tribe and it needs to be evident to everyone that’s looking (because everybody is).

In every organization that I’ve worked in and every project I’ve worked on, I’ve made a dedicated effort to build tribes. The level of success I’ve had in that activity is directly correlated to the level of success I’ve had overall. I have stories and examples of how people have stepped in and gone above and beyond. I have seen disaster situations turned into successes and I have seen people come together to make great things happen. They found their “way to do business” because they were “in it together”.

Keeping building tribes, not teams, and I guarantee you no regrets, full stop.

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